In the run-up to Remembrance Day, a Church of England spokesperson has dismissed a poll at a major Christian arts festival which suggests that many British Christians want troops out of Afghanistan, an end to UK arms exports and a more decisive stand for peace by the churches.
The survey was taken at the Greenbelt Festival in August and the results, released this week, suggest that a large percentage of British Christians now see peace and nonviolence as central to their faith.
But in a report on Politics.co.uk on 26 October 2009, a Church of England spokesperson sought to play down the poll's significance, describing it as a "self-selecting survey at a predominantly evangelical summer camp" and adding: "The Church of England continues to support our armed forces."
Attenders of Greenbelt may be surprised to hear the festival dismissed so easily. It is backed by major organisations like the UK-based international development agency Christian Aid, draws thousands of visitors and big name speakers - including the Archbishop of Canterbury - and has attracted people from all sections of the churches in recent years.
Many see Greenbelt as meeting a need for Christian social witness which declining established churches are reluctant or unable to offer.
The poll in question was carried out between 28-31 August 2009 by the Network of Christian Peace Organisations (NCPO) and 160 people of various age ranges took part in the survey. Forty-four per cent were aged thirty or under and 29 per cent were over forty-five.
Of those polled:
- Sixty per cent wanted an immediate end to UK arms exports, with a further 22 per cent saying that arms should be sold only in "extreme situations".
- Only 9 per cent said that UK troops should remain in Afghanistan until "the war is won". Sixty-one per cent want a timetable to be set for withdrawal, while 30 per cent wanted the troops home by December.
- Nearly half the Christians questioned (45 per cent) wanted the UK to decommission all its nuclear weapons immediately, with only 3 per cent believing that nuclear arms have "kept the peace".
- Fifty-seven per cent said that UK military spending should be reduced, with only 13 per cent thinking it should be increased.
- Twenty-four per cent agreed said that they "totally agreed" with the statement that "To be a Christian is to be totally committed to nonviolence". A further 45 per cent said that they "mostly agreed".
Whilst acknowledging the limitations of a poll sample taken at one Christian festival and giving just a snapshot of the opinion of a certain group of Christians at a specific time, the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, who released the data last week on behalf of NCPO welcomed the results.
Ekklesia's associate director, Symon Hill, said: "Even taking into account its limitations, the results of this poll are a challenge to those who see Christians as bogged down with internal squabbles and trivialities. Large numbers of Christians clearly view peace and nonviolence as central to the Christian message."
He added: "While some may bemoan the churches' loss of status in a post-Christendom society, it seems that Christians' more marginal position allows them to take a more critical approach to power and war. It is particularly important to recognise this at a time when thousands of churches are about to host commemorations for the dead on Remembrance Day".
Despite qualms expressed by Dr Rowan Williams and others over the war in Afghanistan, and opposition to the invasion of Iraq, Church of England spokespeople have been taking a more robustly pro-military position recently - with the Archbishop of York even being proudly pictured by the media in a tank.
The Church has a major involvement in military chaplaincies but has not responded to the suggestion from Ekklesia and others that it might provide pastoral support for those involved in non-violent attempts to address war, injustice and conflict in the world today.
In recent years there has been a significant growth in conflict transformation work across the globe, often involving people of faith. Organisations like Christian Peacemaker Teams, supported by the historic peace churches and other denominations, have also come into being, using nonviolence training to seek to "get in the way" of war and oppression.
However, established and state churches have historically strong ties with the military and have been accused of trimming their witness to suit their desire for worldly recognition and influence.
Christian peace campaigners point out that, ironically, while the Church of England proclaims that it "continues to support our armed forces", the final recorded message of the founder of Christianity to his followers was "put away your sword".